Intraperitoneal free gas seen radiologically as air under the diaphragm nearly always indicates a perforated abdominal viscus that requires surgical intervention. Rarely, however, the presence of a pneumoperitoneum may not indicate an intra-abdominal perforation and thus may not require laparotomy. Such a situation is termed spontaneous or nonsurgical pneumoperitoneum. In this review, we explore the aetiological mechanisms and the pathophysiology of the appearance of intra-abdominal free gas. An appreciation of the condition and its likely aetiological factors should improve awareness and possibly reduce the imperative to perform an emergency laparotomy on an otherwise well patient with an unexplained pneumoperitoneum.
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